Friday, December 14, 2007

Summary of Lecture Fourteen

At the outset we revisited the case of Marcel Proust. A seeming paradox is that, with all of his admiration for John Ruskin, he disregarded the central insight of the English thinker, that is, that societies and their art/architecture are organically linked. According to Ruskin good societies will produce good art and architecture; bad societies bad work. By most people's lights, the beau monde of turn-of-the-century France was a decadent society. From this supposedly repellent material, however, Proust wrested what many regard as the finest novel of the 20th century.

In fact, we have grounds for thinking that Ruskin's organic linkage is not valid, for ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire produced remarkable works, yet both were ruled by despots. Another counterexample, a contemporary one, is that New Zealand and Norway are generally accounted very fine places to live, but they do not seem to be producing notable art and architecture. Perhaps, we may hazard, a certain complexity--a mixture of good and bad--is required for happy creative results.

We also reexamined Proust's architectural metaphor (cathedral or church) for the structure of his great work. It would seem the height of hubris to challenge his testimony, but the comparisons of this kind take us only a little way. The reason is that the organizing principles of the arts of time (music, poetry, novels) are different from those of the arts of space (architecture, sculpture, and painting).

By way of a footnote, we examined Proust's enthusiasm for the "greatest painting in the world," Vermeer's "View of Delft." To Bergotte, his ideal writer, Proust ascribes a terminal illumination provoked by the little patch of yellow. We may assume that this tiny passage in Vermeer's painting played the role of a talisman for Proust also.

We turned then to the issue of primitivism. In art history we are familiar with one definition of this concept (though it has become controversial in recent years). "Primitivism" means, it seems, the inspiration that Picasso, Modigliani, and some German expressionists derived from tribal art (African and Oceanic).

However, the idea of primitivism has an older, and perhaps more interesting pedigree. The historians of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas have identified many passages from ancient Greek and Roman society, arguing that human history is not a record of progress but, instead, of devolution. According to one common scheme, we progress from the age of gold, to that of silver, then bronze, and finally iron (in which we now live). In these nostalgic evocations of past splendor, Lovejoy and Boas
distinguished between "soft primitivism" (an age of leisure based on abundance) and "hard primitivism" (in which scarcity shaped human endeavors, at the same time blocking the effects of luxury and decadence).

Such concepts underly the emergence, some 200 years ago, of the admiration for the Italian and French "primitive" artists. Artists such as Duccio, Cimabue, and the Van Eycks came to be seen with a new sympathy. It was felt that the design elements achieved in their works made them the equal, if not the superior of later artists.

Hence, at some point perhaps around 1520, art and culture "went off the rails." Our task is to return to those exemplary models, including those of the Middle Ages.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Summary of Lecture Thirteen

The fact that the troubadours wrote in an obscure tongue (one that is now to all intents and purposes dying) means that their accomplishment is easily underrated. In fact they constitute the second (and last) instance of a major cultural revolution. In ancient Greece we are familiar with the achievements of such lyric poets as Sappho and Alcaeus, who revolutionized the art of poetry by creating works with an intensely personal stamp. Distinctive qualities of imagery, rhythm, and diction make their works, as it were, copyright. With every word each poem of Sappho says "I belong to Sappho; I am just on loan to you the reader." This personalism is the diametrical opposite of the collective approach of the singers of epics (Homer preeminent among them). A similar revolution occurred in Provence at the end of the eleventh century.
As far as I can see, these are the only two instances in Western civilization.

As in ancient Greece, the troubadours included women poets (the trobairitz). The poems of the Countess of Dia reveal a realistic, almost postmodern concept of love, breaking with the courtly love tradition.

The "Nothing Song" of William IX is often taken as an anticipation of the claim that certain modern works, notably nonobjective paintings, are "about nothing." Whatever the merits of this overall claim, it does not seem to apply to the main part of William's poem (see the appendix to the last lecture). It looks to me as if it constitutes a challenge, a testing of the limits, as it were of the triumphant new reign of subjectivity. Instead, William posits (if only as a thought experiment) a contrasting concept of the fluid indeterminacy of personality. As Pound suggested (though in different terms), the troubadours were, among other things, analysts of psychology.

Pound raises several issues that call for revisiting. First is the critical ploy of separating the "good Pound" from the "bad Pound." It seems that we can do this by sticking to the work prior to 1920. However, this body of poetry leads almost seamlessly to The Cantos, with their intermittent advocacy of crackpot economic theories and enthusiasm for Mussolini and his surrogates.

How could Pound, an intelligent person, have fallen for Mussolini's fascism? Nowadays scholars have reopened the issue of fascist culture, as there were indeed progressive aspects. One occurred in architecture. Terragni's Casa del Fascio in Como is not only a perfect specimen of the International style inaugurated by Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, it may be the finest building built anywhere in the 1930s. The alliance between fascism and Futurism bore fruit in the Second Futurism of Fortunato Depero and others. Some have even detected "green" elements in fascism, as in the draining of the Pontine Marshes. A medieval feature is his revival of the idea of guilds (corporazioni).

In due course the regime was done in by its weaknesses. Mussolini lacked the economic resources to raise Italy into the status of a major power. His predatory militarism alienated those who had been formally his admirers. And his insulation from criticism ("Mussolini is always right.") was an open invitation to folly.

We mentioned some human foibles of Ezra Pound, as seen in his treatment of women and his children. Unfortunately, his residence in the mental asylum tended to reinforce, rather than cure his delusions.

The second hour discussed an entirely different case of catalytic medievalism, that of Marcel Proust. At the end of his life, Proust stated that his great novel had the structure of a cathedral.

For five years of his life, beginning in 1900, Proust devoted himself to the writings of John Ruskin (he published two translated books). Ruskin's immense influence (both Tolstoy and Gandhi were admirers) reflected in part his hypnotic prose style. In the Dickensian squalor occasioned by the Industrial Revolution many subscribed to Ruskin's equation of architecture and morality. Put bluntly, a good society produces good architecture; a bad society produces bad architecture. We Victorians, he held, are in the latter situation.

Ruskin then was a kind of latter-day prophet, excoriating the glaring faults of society. Here we see, I think, a divergence from Proust, who recorded, but did not condemn, the "decadent" society of France in his day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Summary of Lecture Twelve

The main theme of the discussion was literary modernism in the English-speaking world, especially High Modernism, which flourished from ca. 1914 to the mid-fifties.

Broadly speaking, there is a distinction between modernity and modernism. The first term is descriptive, the second prescriptive. Modernity is the situation in which we live. It is something that is simply given, today just as in former times. Bt contrast, modernism is a cause, a faith, a commitment--in short, an ism. Modernism requires allegiance or rejection, It attrracts passionate defenders and passionate opponents.

As regards etymology. the term modernismo stems from the Nicaraguan poet and journalist Ruben Dario in the 1880s. However, the poetry produced by Dario and his confreres was a form of late romanticism with cosmic overtones--a protomodernism, if you will. Catalan modernisme comes closer to the mark, with (as we have seen) distinct medieval overtones.

There are two modernist attitudes to the role of the past. 1) Proscription: true modernity means absolute renunciation of tradition and the past. We must embrace the present without any compromise. The Futurist leader F. T. Marinetti suggested a drastic solution, with his vision of the flooded museum, its masterpieces floating out to sea. (A new form of iconoclasm.) More constructively, he suggested (in his 1909 manifesto) a contrast between the Nike of Samothrace vs. a speeding automobile. In his view, the latter talisman replaces the former.

2) The other view entails a selective retention of past monuments. This approach transpires from Le Corbusier’s 1923 book “Vers une architecture” (English version seen in class). Buildings are much harder to get rid of than fragile oil paintings. By studying old buildings we learn essential principles of construction and proportion. The latter are as it were given in the nature of the universe (Pythagoreanism).

We turn now to high HIGH MODERNISM (as distinct from protomodernism and from semimodernism; the first anticipates, the second adopts only partially).

The English-speaking world rejoices in five quintessential high modernists: TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. (I take this list from a Harvard professor of literature; it would be widely endorsed.) Three characteristics are required for admission to this exclusive club: the members are major figures, each with a large body of significant work; the work is “full-strength modernism”; challenging and difficult: in consequence, they are not widely popular, though they receive the homage of fellow practitioners. In the quintet two are primarily poets; the other three mainly prose writers.

The following group characteristics are generally applicable.

1) Exile (this applies to all except Woolf). Abroad, they retain an intense attachment to their native country. Joyce labored mightily to recapture one day in Dublin in 1904. Stein sought to capture qualities of American language (“You bet!”). Pound’s showed an eccentric attachment to the US Constitution and the Founders (note the comparison of Jefferson and Mussolini). Woolf’s fragile mental health precluded travel; yet she was, so to speak, embedded in Francotropic Bloomsbury. Eliot, the most assimilated, sought to make himself into a facsimile of an Englishman; yet he returned to US fairly often to give lectures. With his love-hate for Ireland, Joyce is a special case. These exiles shared a sense of the provinciality of their homelands. In the previous generation Henry James was the model of the cultivated expatriate.

2) These writers exhibit an intense response to language, their own and others. Joyce was the most fluent linguist. He could, seemingly mimic any language. As a young man he learned Norwegian in order to read Ibsen. Residence in Italy, German-speaking Switzerland, and Paris improved his facility. Joyce spoke to his children in Triestino dialect! His situation may reflect the peculiar status of the Irish in mastering English, a language not originally theirs. Pound had a romance-language attachment; later he learned to read Chinese. Eliot studied Sanskrit at Harvard, yielding the incantatory words that conclude “The Waste Land.” Arguably, the deployment of these exotic languages adumbrates a sense of global culture.

3) There was an emphasis on consciousness and stream of consciousness. Joyce’s revival of the technique of stream of consciousness was echoed by Virginia Woolf. Stein had studied with the Harvard psychologist William James, who was interested in phenomena that existed on the borders of consciousness. Pound revealed an early devotion to Browningesque personae, usurpations of the consciousness of another.

4) Hence the notorious difficulty of the High Modernist works. While proficient in several varieties of French, Stein does not overtly display this knowledge. Instead she uses English in unexpected ways. In some respects her core texts are the most hermetic of all. This difficulty has engendered an academic industry of explication. What did they really mean? Eliot supplied “The Waste Land” with footnotes (which have not deterred later commentators). Joyce related to Homer; Pound to Dante. Even devoted Joyceans are dismayed by his terminal masterpiece “Finnegan’s Wake,” which seems to represent the ne plus ultra of difficulty.

5) Perhaps the key feature is discontinuity. The modern world presents an endless, disconcerting jangle of messages--a broken bundle of mirrors, in Pound’s words. Modern urban life features a bombardment of sense impressions, as conveyed by advertising, for example. We are set in this “booming, buzzing confusion” without a compass, except perhaps that of science--but scientists continue to differ on key points (eg the classic contrast between quantum physics and Einstein). Modernism means facing these discontinuities squarely, and using them as central features in one’s art.

6) The high modernists cause discomfort, because they are not politically correct. Their politics are disturbing, witness Stein’s dalliance with the French right; Eliot’s royalism and anti-Semitism; Pound’s adhesion to fascism; Woolf’s snobbery; Joyce’s elitism.


Born in Idaho, Ezra Pound was actually brought up in comfort in a Philadelphia suburb. The year of birth was 1885, so he came to maturity in our Gilded Age. Taken to Europe as a boy, the experience evidently “took” He was good at Latin, and so admitted to he University of Pennsylvania at the age of 15. He did not do well there, and transferred to Hamilton College in upstate NY. There he caught the bug of medieval literature, especially Provençal.

Here some background is required. Speaking very broadly. we may say that there are two medievialisms, that of the Latin Middle Ages and that of the vernacular Middle Ages. The Latin Middle Ages was often intertwined with polemical concerns, e.g. the Protestant-Catholic quarrel and the emergence of modern nationalism (the Monumenta Germaniae Historica). Connected with the rise of Romanticism, the vernacular Middle Ages recovered the earliest texts of Europe’s modern languages. The rediscovery of the text of Beowulf, preserved in a single manuscript in the British Library is an example. Other epics also reappeared: the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland, the Cantar del Mio Cid. There was an underlying quest for origins, entailing the notion that Provençal should rank as the primordial romance language. This is not so. Nonetheless, with their insensely personal lyrics, the troubadours created the first art language in a vernacular tongue. To Pound, the craft aspect--including the intricate trobar clus-- appealed. And so did courtly love.

After taking his M.A. Pound accepted an instructor’s appointment at Wabash College in Crawford, IN. In February 1908 a single act of generosity determined his entire future career. Going out one snowy evening, he discovered an actress who had been abandoned by her troupe. Pound took the young woman back to sleep on his couch; apparently nothing further happened. But the two maiden landladies, finding the young woman, were scandalized. Pound was immediately fired Concluding that his fledgling academic career was over, he borrowed money from father to go to Europe, where he would learn to be a poet.

First he went to Italy, then to London, the epicenter of Anglophone culture. He published a series of small volumes of poetry, and also lectured occasionally. Pound developed a flair for translation (integral to his Provençal interests); arguably, his innovative practices in the realm are the foundation for all succeeding English-language translators.

Pound’s poetic medievalism shows five spheres of engagement: 1) “The Goodly Fere” and Primitive Christianity; 2) The Saxonism of “The Seafarer”; 3) The Troubadours; 4) Dante and Cavalcanti; 5) François Villon. The engagement with the Troubadours is clearly the center of gravity.

The Pound scholar Richard Sieberth has argued for Pound’s 1912 walking tours of the south of France as his pivotal experience. Here he learned to experience the Troubadours in his own body, so to speak. Historically, the South of France produced three innovative phenomena: Romanesque architecture; the Troubadours; and the heresy known as Albigensianism or Catharism. The Albigensians had in fact a very strict sexual morality, but they were pilloried by their enemies as libertines. As such, they could be portrayed as the dark side of courtly love. At any rate, the concept of “hidden history” has a perennial appeal. Pound responded with his concept of the “love code,” hinting that the Troubadours preserved a pre-Christian mystique, linked to Eleusis.

In progressive literary circles, Pound found that his medievalism elicited ridicule as a Victorian survival. He took this criticism to heart. It was only after his involvement in Imagism, Vorticism, and above all Chinese poetry, that he was able to incorporate medieval components into his High Modernist magnum opus, The Cantos. The Procne-Cabestanh material, involving cannibalism, was cited as an example. Its gruesomeness is atypical, but of course that huge poem contains a good deal of controversial material.

APPENDIX. William IX: “The Nothing Poem/”

(We will discuss this tour de force next time). This translation derives from excellent comprehensive site

Farai un vers de dreit nien,
Non er de mi ni d'autra gen,
Non er d'amor ni de joven,
Ni de ren au,
Qu'enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau. etc.

I'll write a verse about nothing at all,
it isn't about me or about anybody else,
it isn't about love nor about youth,
nor about anything else,
because, in the first place, it was conceived while sleeping
on a horse.

I don't know at which time I was born,
I am neither happy nor sad,
I am neither a stranger nor a native,
nor can I do anything,
because I was so bewitched one night
on a high hill.

I don't know when I'm asleep,
nor when I am awake, unless I am told!
I almost had my heart broken
by a deep pain,
and I don't care at all,
by St. Martial!

I am sick and I'm afraid to die,
but I don't know more than I hear around.
I'll call for a doctor as I feel,
but I don't know which one:
he is a good doctor if he can heal me,
he isn't if I get worse.

I have a mistress, and I don't know who she is,
because I never saw her, by my troth,
nor did she do anything I'd like or dislike,
nor do I care
since I never had either a Norman or a Frenchman
in my house.

I never saw her and I love her much,
I never had meed, nor did she ever wrong me;
when I don't see her, I do rather well,
I don't care,
because I know a kinder and prettier one
who is worth more.

I have written the verse, I don't know about whom,
and I'll convey it to the one
who'll convey it to someone else
towards Poitiers,
since I would like, of that etui,
to have the second key.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eleven

The first part of the lecture concerned the rise of the discipline of design in England in the middle of the 19th century. Significantly, the English word "design" has migrated without change into French and German.

Provisionally, we suggested that design differs from older concepts of the "applied arts" and the "minor arts" principally because it harnesses the designing function to exploitation by industrial processes. That is, the designer does not proceed to execute his or her concept by hand, but must rely on the intervention of industry to carry it out. John Ruskin and other conservative critics held that quality could not be maintained under the new circumstances, and indeed they were able to point to many examples of shoddy work. However, the design revolution of Christopher Dresser proved them wrong. Modern design in therefore, perforce, industrial design.

We began with a brief prologue: two buildings. Paddington Station in West London illustrates the rise of a new building type--the railway terminal. The Brunel-Wyatt design (1852ff.) shows a number of revealing purloinings from an analysis of medieval architecture: the bay system surmounted by ribs imitated in cast iron; the transept; and the tell-tale Perpendicular cells in the spandrels. More generally, Paddington benefits from the Gothic sense of cost analysis: how can one get the maximum of building with the minimal deployment of materials?

The second building is Joseph Paxton's great hall (the "Crystal Palace") for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the first World's Fair, in Hyde Park. With its "functionalist" economy of means, this building may be regarded as the beginning of modern architecture. It was put up in record time, relying on the principle of standardized units (cast iron and glass). Immediately after the exhibition it was reerected in Sydenham in South London (where it unfortunately burned in 1936).

The Crystal Palace exhibits, especially those in the field of home furnishings and the decorative arts, were less satisfactory. In fact, they were frankly kitschy, combining vulgarity and shoddy workmanship.

This perceived debacle precipitated a demand for reform of design. Government design schools appeared, and what became the Victorian and Albert Museum arose in South Kensington as a showplace for well-designed objects from the world over. This institution became the model for other museums of this kind, including our Cooper-Hewitt.

The most radical response to the spirit of design reform was led by Christopher Dresser, the precursor of all later "modern" design. Dresser acknowledged three influences: the Gothic (as seen in his schemes for stained-glass windows); ancient Egypt; and Japan, with he visited personally.

Dresser's tea kettles and other domestic objects flaunt a drastic elimination of any unnecessary ornament. Less is indeed more. He had a few English followers, such as Archibald Knox, but essentially the baton passed to the Continent, as seen in the work of J. M. Olbrich and other Viennese Sezessionists, not to mention the Bauhaus.

We then turned to the major theme of the lecture: the medieval contribution to our modern sense of sex and love. Ås a general principle one may posit that sex is a universal biological substrate, conditioned by the need of organisms to participate in the chain that prolongs the species. On this substructure, however, each society imposes a superstructure consisting of dos and don'ts, and (above all) a particular love ethic. Thus there was one dominant concept of love in ancient Greece, another in medieval Japan, a third in Islam, and a fourth in the high Middle Ages.

Accordingly, our analysis of the medieval contribution divides into the grosser aspects, mainly seen in our linguistic heritage, and the new sophistication of the concept of love, the precursor of our own sense of love (most recently affirmed by Dorothy Tennov as limerance).

The prurient impulse to censure language, especially when it comes to excretory and sexual functions, is probably perennial, though it is much stronger in some eras than others. Even ancient Rome, famous for its ribald works of satire, found it expedient to replace the harsh word mentula with penis, and merda with faeces. Cunnus yielded to vagina ("sheath"). (The substitutes found their way, of course into our own formal language.)

In the English-speaking world, the beginnings of what might be called the dual language system--"four-letter" words vs. dignified substitutes--may be placed around 1600. Neither Shakespeare nor the King James Bible employ the more familiar Anglo-Saxon terms which had, as a rule, been freely used in Old and Middle English texts. This reign of prudery reached its height in Victorian times, when some chose to replace "leg" with limb. Prostitutes were "fallen women" and homosexuality was the "sin that dare not speak its name." (The principle of unspeakability represents the extreme version of this reign of censorship.)

The taboos were not broken until the 1960s, where a series of court cases in England and America cleared the way for the publication of such "dirty books" as those of Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence. Visual pornography soon followed. Nowadays, even college dictionaries include the George Carlin Seven--and much else of the kind. No longer need young people search in vain for words that almost everyone knows.

The Middle Ages had its own "pornography" in the form of the fabliaux, a tradition gently echoed in the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lest one overidealize the linguistic tolerance of the Middle Ages, one should note that the era gave rise to ideas that have continued to spread confusion. These fabrications regarding sex are the result of the combination of ecclesiastical taboos with popular prejudice. "Baeddel, baedling" is a case in point, as these Old English word fuse the distinction ideas of anatomical hermaphroditism and same-sex behavior. (Curiously the words gave rise to our modern English adjective of disparagement: "bad.") "Buggery" derives, via French, from a notion that the old Bulgarians combined dualist heresy (Manichaeanism) with sexual variance.

Visual parallels are found in the grotesque images of female presentation known as the Sheela-na-gig. While these may stem in part from representations of the vice of Lust (as at Moissac) they reflect an older stratum of genital display as menace (cf. Baubo in ancient Greece). As such, the images performed an apotropaic function, protecting windows, doorways, and arches from hostile intruders.

We also looked at the beautiful droleries in the 14th-centure Ormsby Psalter in Oxford. These reveal preoccupations (anal, monstrous) that might be thought to lie in the realm of psychoanalysis. In fact they represent not the pathology of an individual artist, but a stable tradition of marginalia (see the recent monograph by Michael Camille).

Turning now to the medieval contribution to the higher realm of emotions, we considered the rise of Courtly Love in the south of France in the 11th century in the work of the Troubadour poets. This invention coincided geographically with the rise of Romanesque, as determined by Puig i Cadafalch.

The customs of Courtly Love stemmed in the first instance from the fact that elite marriages were essentially economic arrangements, a situation in which love did not flourish. Accordingly, one sought emotional satisfaction outside the marriage bonds--in adulterous arrangements. However, these were difficult to achieve, hence the longueurs of the courting process. In keeping with the feudal concept of vassalage the Courtly Love suitor idealized his lady, going so far as to refer to her as "midons" my lord. The suitor was expected to be exemplary in word and deed, so that the process had a character-building aspect.

Andreas Capellanus expatiated on the theory of Courtly Love. He placed a very high value on the concept, asserting that everything good in this world (as distinction from the celestial realm of perfection) takes its origin from love. Love indeed makes the world go around. He spoke of the courts of love. Those committed to the celebration of its mysteries were the "soldiers" of love."

It would take too long to trace the entire itinerary linking this concept and our modern notions of romantic love. Suffice it to say that the traditions spread south (in the Italian trend of the dolce stil nuovo, with Dante at its head and Petrarch as its heir) and north to the courts of northern France, Germany, and England. About 1180 Chretien de Troyes placed a decisive stamp of Courtly Love on the older "matter of Britain," especially the Lancelot story.

We concluded by first examining medieval manuscripts of the Arthurian legends concerning Lancelot of the Lake and Tristan and Iseult (Isolde). Then we saw English exemplars by Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Burne-Jones.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Summary of Lecture Ten

Chris Brooks rightly concentrates on England as the key country in the emergence of the Gothic Revival as a major creative force. (As noted in the second hour, though, there is a major blind spot: Catalonia.)

Several features of the cultural climate of the 18th century in England were formative in the shift from Gothic from a mere antiquarian and dilettantish preoccupation among some members of the elite to its role as a vital creative force.

The most general of these trends was the rise of the Romantic sensibility. Here the key is probably the new emphasis on feeling and intuition, dethroning the central role of reason. Initially the Romantic movement was literary (yielding such major poets as Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Blake). But it shortly developed a visual and (above all) musical dimension. Some hold that the triumph of "classical" music, especially instrumental music, in the 19th century is largely due to the enabling force of Romantic sentiment.

It was in Germany, however, that the first convincing theoretical explanations were offered. Friedrich Schlegel encapsulated the Romantic quest in the pithy formula: "striving for the infinite." Discarding the normative strictures of the previously regnant Neoclassicism, Romanticism prepared the way for "alternative aesthetics," including Gothic.

The concept of the Picturesque was promoted by William Gilpin, beginning in 1782. It was originally not a movement directed at art, but derived from art, especially such earlier landscapes as those of Claude Lorrain (cf. the contemporary work of Richard Wilson). The vogue for Picturesque travel highlighted gentle features in nature, which invited contemplation. (In poetry Wordsworth exemplifies this trend.)

The Sublime is the more formidable sibling of the Picturesque. Based on the obscure treatise of Longinus, discussion began in England at the start of the 18th century. Joseph Addison, for example, described a trip across the Alps as a Sublime experience.

It was left to the youthful Edmund Burke, however. to systematize the question. He held that there are two key aspects of human experience: love and fear. Our sense of beauty, stemming from love, tends to make us drawn to such features as smallness, smoothness, and delicacy. Contemplating scenes and works of art that have these qualities serves to calm and reassure us.
Stemming from fear, the feeling for the Sublime gains force from vastness, infinity, and magnificence.

Burke saw these two aesthetic responses, beauty and the Sublime, as mutually exclusive. What is revolutionary about his theory is that it is binary--and potentially pluralistic. No longer need we limit our aesthetic response to the pole of beauty, a monism that had been taken for granted in earlier aesthetics.

Exasmples of the Sublime by Loutherbourg (Avalanche in the Alps, 1804) and Turner (Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834) were examined. We noted the proposal of Robert Rosenblum (1961) to regard 19th-century landscapes, as those of Birstadt, as precursors of the 20th-century Sublime (Rothko).

Ruins, it seems, can be either Picturesque (Turner's Easby Abbey) or Sublime (Cole).

The second hour discussed the role of the Gothic in Catalan modernismo. As a political and cultural movement, Catalan nationalism reflected a sense of economic grievance--that this highly industrialized region was being short-changed by Castilian centralism. There was an appeal to the era of Catalan greatness, when its dominions had extended (in the 14th and 15th centuries) across the Mediterranean, as far as Sicily and Naples. During this period, of course Gothic had prevailed, as we saw in the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca (begun in 1229).

The Casa Marti, better known as the Quatre Gats cabaret, stood at the center of Barcelona's bohemian creativity. The Neo-Gothic building was designed by the multitalented J. Puig i Cadafalch, whom we earlier met at the discoverer of the proto-Romanesque.

It was of course Antoni Gaudi i Cornet who was the presiding genius of Catalan modernism. We first looked at his Casa Batllo,' which combines medievalism with Moorish tiles and touches of art nouveau.

The Parc Guell shows his innovative use of arches, stemming from his study of Gothic, but yielding entirely novel results. These arches were to bear fruit in the chapel of the Colonia Guell at Santa Coloma.

For most of his later life Gaudi devoted himself to the Sagrada Familia church, still unfinished after 125 years. The 1882 plan, with its three great portals, reflects a study of French Gothic.
Today, the towers and pinnacles of the Sagrada Familia have rightly become the symbol of the city of Barcelona.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Summary of Lecture Nine

For a long time the term Gothic (and earlier its synonym "German") was used indiscriminately to cover the entire Middle Ages. As nothing of value happened during the Dark Ages, it was not necessary to observe chronological niceties.

During the 17th century, however, architects in England and France began to notice differences between what they termed earlier Gothic and later Gothic. The one featured the round arch, the other the pointed arch. The earlier buildings preferred massive walls, the later one, light, soaring forms.

It is difficult to discuss a phenomenon without a name, and this advance came in the second decade of the 19th century, when the problem was tackled by William Gunn and Charles de Gerville. The former proposed (in 1819) the English term "Romanesque," while Gerville advanced the somewhat confusiong word "roman." Common to both designations is a sense of kinship with imperial Roman architecture, witness the round arch. (There is a monograph on these acts of naming by Tina Waldeier Bizzarro.)

Several examples served to illustrate our current understanding of Romanesque and its difference from Gothic. The Morgan Madonna in the Met illustrates the compact, obdurate, almost squat forms preferred in sculpture, while its Gothic companion in Boston (ca. 1200) revealed the delicacy and soaring ascent of Gothic.

Several manuscript illuminations took us further, The image of the Expulsion from Eden from the St. Albans Psalter showed a creative interplay with the three cells delimited by the arches. The St. Amandus image displayed a mor doctrinaire approach to compartmentation.

Particularly revealing were some images from a manuscript in Wiesbaden (no longer extant) attributed to the polymath Hildegard of Bingen. Among other things, she showed an affinity for central-plan, mandala like compositions. There is an interesting affinity with the pioneering Swedish abstractionist Hilma af Klint.

That playful aspects were not absent from Romanesque is seen in two initials from Citeaux. Such forms descend, of course, from Merovingian initials, but are now much more mature.

The Friedenskirche in Potsdam (completed in 1848) is a token of the Romanesque revival, which began in Germany in the 1840s. A distant echo of this trend is the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square (1892). NYC's most prominent hommage to the Romanesque is the Cloisters, consisting of portions of medieval buildings (mainly French and Spanish), "kidnapped" for this purpose.

A more creative approach to Romanesque appears in the work of America's first world-class architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Richardson had learned a great deal about Romanesque during his years in France (where he waited out the Civil War). In Pittsburgh his Allegheny Jail and Courthouse showed a new use for Romanesque: carceral architecture. The so-called "Syrian arch," with is massive, spiky voussoirs, initiated a trend imitated by his successors Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

More orthodox, perhaps, is Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston (begun 1875). This draws on the rich decorative vocabulary of mature French and Spanish Romanesque.

Eventually a more austere model of Romanesque came into vogue, as seen in the abbey of St. Philibert at Tournus. In his early career Le Corbusier had been interested in Gothic. At the end of his career he turned to Cistertian austerity and (I would argue) Romanesque, as seen in his monastery of La Tourette. (See my recent article in Gesta.)

Other Romanesque affinities were seen in paintings by Mario Sironi and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Finally, Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park (1906) was named as a (possibly) Romanesquoid building.

For a long time the question of the origins and date of Gothic remained uncertain. With the "liberation" of Romanesque from the Gothic embrace, this question seemed more earnest. It was taken for granted that Gothic had originated in the forests of northern Europe, being this a particular item in the Germanic-Emglish repertoire. Others proposed that Gothic architecture was quintessentially Christian, an explanation not incompatible with the previous one.

It was left for an obscure German architectural historian, Franz Mertens, to prove (in 1842) that Gothic was actually French. He did this by carefully studying the dates of the earliest buildings, an endeavor that pointed to the Ile de France, specifically the abbey of St. Denis. Today there is a general consensus that this pinpointing is correct. Gothic was invented by Abbot Suger at St. Denis, ca. 1144.

The origins of Romanesque are more diffuse. They were not clarified until the Catalan architect and historian Puig i Cadafalch made his fundamental studies a century ago. Puig showed that proto-Romanesque emerged in the 11th century in an arc stretching from Catalonia, through southern France, to Lombardy in northern Italy. These provinces had been strongly imbued with the Roman heritage.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Summary of Lecture Seven

The Merovingian era is one of the most obscure periods of European history. It may be that its "curse" has arisen anew, as I inadvertently omitted to post the Summary of Lecture Seven. Here it is, after a week's delay--and out of sequence.

As we noted on a previous occasion, the notion of the "Dark Ages" was coined by Petrarch in the 14th century as a universal label of opprobrium for the entire Middle Ages. Since it seemed little of significance happened during that regrettable age of superstition and tyranny, there was scarcely any need for differentiation of historical sequences. It was all one dismall blur. Gradually, however, it became clear that major cultural accomplishments had occurred during the later Middle Ages, the era of the Romanesque and Gothic. Nor could Byzantium, capable of transmitting its culture through much of the Slavic world, qualify for the epithet.

Many hold, though, that the period from ca. 500 to 1000 in Western Europe, sometimes termed the age of the barbarian kingdoms, was a genuine Dark Age. Perhaps so. There was an undoubted social and economic decline, but nonetheless the period did make some major cultural advances, one of the which, the majuscule-minuscule balance in typography, is still very much with us.

After the failure (after 565) of Justinian's overambitious project of reunification of the Roman Empire, the still-prosperous East eseentially wrote off the errant Western provinces. As long as these regna barbarorum acknowledged the nominal supremacy of the great basileus in Constantinople, they could be left to stew in their own juice.

All the same, things were stirring in that dispised juice (so to speak). This period saw a process of ethnogenesis, in which the nations of Western Europe enucleated: Italy (with its Ostrogoths and Lombards), Spain (Visigoths), England (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), and France (the Salian Franks). The Frankish kingdom is sometimes termed Merovingian, after a putative early monarch.

The era also saw an important process of glottogenesis, in which the primordial forms of the modern vernacular languages emerged. Latin ceased to be spoken in Gaul about 770, replaced by Old French (even though written Latin continued to be an attribute of those few educated people who survived). If the term is apt, Latin became a dead language from this time forward. Latin was a synthetic (inflected) language; French (and its romance sisters), an analytic tongue. The contrast may be illustrated by translating the Latin phrase "casus belli" into French, where it becomes "la cause de la guerre." In addition to the articles (lacking in Latin) we note the appearance of the preposition "de," which does the work of the genetive ending -i, attached to the word for war.

And there were important lexical changes. The older word for war, "bellum," yielded to "guerre," derived as in English from a Germanic root, "werra." Neglected by the French educational system, the Germanic Franks left a major impress on the French language and culture. To this hybridity (romance and Germanic) French culture probably owes much of its incomparaple capacity for irradiation. As examples of the Frankish heritage we noted "boulevard" and "bourgeois," so important for 19th- century society. Frankish military customs led to feodalism (reflecting a Germanic word "fief," originally referring to cattle) and chivalry, the civilized transmogrification of the crude warrior code. (The word chivalry itself derives from the Vulgar Latin substitute for "equus.")

In the last analysis the spoken language is the basis for the written language, which is what will shortly concern us. Since the vernacular was not written at this point, Merovingian scribes had to struggle with their imperfect knowledge of an exotic language, one moreover that was tinged with religious awe, as the Christian scriptures familiar to them were written in ecclesiastical Latin. This condition of juggling two languages (often heard on NYC streets) is termed diglossia.

Some Merovingian manuscripts (such as the Gelasian Sacramentary in the Vatican) show an almost childish glee for color and for a proliferation of creatures such as birds and fish. The Sacramentary of Gellone shows the first mermaid known to me. Perhaps
it is not too much of a stretch to say that Merovingian scribes invented the child's coloring book. In its original context, such adornment may reflect a magical world view, one understandable among people who had just learned to write.

However that may be, they did two things of utmost importance. 1) They created minuscule script made of up lower-case letters out of earlier attempts at cursive writing. As noted on the blackboard, the essential difference between majuscule (A FLY) and minuscule (a fly) is that the former can be written in a two-line stave, the latter, the new invention, required a four-line stave. Most of the text you are reading is composed in minuscule.

2) They created a binary system in which majuscule is used for headings and capitals at the beginning of sentences, while minuscule rules in the body of the text. This binararism stands in stark contrast to Roman script-monism. To the best of my knowledge all original Latin inscriptions and manuscripts are written only in majuscule capitals. These came in several varieties, including the stately capitalis quadrata and the more compact capitalis rustica. But as in Henry Ford's precept "You can have any color you want, as long as is is black," the ancient Romans (like the ancient Greeks) offered no relief from the ruthless hegemony of capitals. IMAGINEHAVINGTOWRITEEVERYTHINGLIKETHIS. The Latin scribes rarely observed breaks between words or syllables. This wall-to-wall treatment reflects the fact that the ancients read texts aloud. Silent reading began to come in only around 400 CE.

We briefly noted the more elegant version of this binarism (majuscule mingling with minuscule) in the manuscripts of the Carolingian era. A brief glance at the front page of the New York Times showed how these principles still prevail.

Across the English channel the Hiberno-Saxon cultures flourished contemporaneously. We briefly examined the wonderful, color-drenched jewelry recovered from the still pagan burian at Sutton Hoo near the East coast of England. The prevalance of red shows an affinity with modern works such as Matisse's "Red Studio" of 1911.

The Irish illuminators of the Books of Durrow and Kells showed various innovations. The use of flatness, as seen in the Matthew of Durrow, is an important precursor of modern flatness, as are, in a different way, the carpet pages, showing as they do Joseph Mashek's Carpet Principle. In script the innovation of the decrescendo (letters decreasing in size) at the start of texts has not been generally followed--except perhaps in graphic novels, where one sometimes finds phrases such as "AAaargh" rendered in this fashion.

We posited a relationship between the ornament of Louis Sullivan, as seen in the entrance to the Carson, Pirie, Scott building, and the Book of Kells. More generally, the art nouveau honors a debt to Hiberno-Saxon ornament, as seen (e.g.) in the interior of Victor Horta's Tassel House in Brussels from the 1890s.

Summary of Lecture Eight

The Carolingian era--anchored by Charlemagne's imperial coronation in 800--shows both continuity and innovation. Like their Merovingian predecessors, whom they supplanted, the Carolingians (including Karl der Grosse/Charlemagne) were Franks. Their regime, which emphasized education and competent administration, was at bottom another barbarian kingdom. As we saw in the previous lecture, their scribes refined the binary system of manuscript page layout, bequeathing it to all later generations, including ours.

Charlemagne's empire embraced much of what became the core of the European Community, that is, France, (northern) Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The capital was located at Aachen in Germany, a little more than a stone's throw away from the borders of today's Netherlands and Belgium. Of course, the revival of the imperial idea (in competition with Byzantium) proved to be problematic. Charlmagne's grandsons effected the separation of France and Germany (previously a unit) in 843, with fateful consequences down to 1945.

As seen in two paintings by Jacques-Louis David, the heritage of Charlemagne was alive in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. The equestrian portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps evokes both Hannibal and Charlemagne by name. The big canvas of the imperial coronation of 1804 tracks the similar event a millennium before, with the required participation of the pope.

In the course of the tenth century, the Carolingian family faded away. Its hegemony was succeeded by the Saxon Ottonians, who used their Frankish precessors as a template. In 962 Otto the Great achieved imperial coronation in Rome, inaugurating what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire.

The Carolingian Ebbo Gospels in Epernay (about 835) set the tone for a similarly exhuberant type of manuscript illumination in the Ottonian school of Cologne. We looked at the Hitda Gospels, a manuscript made for an intellectual-abbess. The protoexpressionism therein embodied also appeared in two ivories and the famous bronze doors of Hildesheim of 1015, where we noted the scene of the Expulsion.

The most extraordinary accomplishment of the Ottonians was the revival of monumental sculpture, a tradition that had been essentially extinct for 500 years. The Essen Madonna (slightly under life size) has a barbaric intensity that is understandable
given the novelty of the task. It has (or had, prior to replacement with plastic) a wooden core, over which a gold-leaf covering was fashioned. The Crucifix of Archbishop Gero in Cologne Cathedral is highly expressive. It is one of the first pieces of art to show Christ as dead. Both works derived their "permission" (as it were) from their function as reliquaries. They are the lineal ancestors of all subsequent monumental sculpture in the West, a tradition that did not start in the Italian Renaissance, as sometimes assumed.

Two wood sculptures by Ernst Barlach were briefly noted as 20th-century avatars of the Ottonian expressionist tradition.

In addition we examined some vivid manuscript illuminations of the Beatus (Apocalypse) text, products of the Mozarabic culture, a Spanish counterpart of the Ottonians. The appeal of their intense, saturated hues and striking simplifications to the modern sensibility needs no emphasis, though we did mention the influence of the Saint-Sever Apocalypse on Picasso, ca. 1930.

In conclusion we examined some points raised by the paper assignment. While capitalism is conventionally regarded as antithetical to the "feudal" Middle Ages, we noted two medieval anticipations: the use of the check in banking, and the sweatshop, which appeared in the late medieval cloth industry of Flanders and northern France. The four ethnic types seen in the heads of the Woolworth Building probably allude (following an 18th-century tradition) to the four continents--and by implication to the global aspirations of the Woolworth firm.

Finally, we discussed the supercession (at first gradual and partial) of historicism in public buildings by the austerities of the International Style (from 1922 onwards). Lionel Feininger's 1919 flyer of the Bauhaus still assumes that one can appeal to medieval precedent--in this case the presumed Gothic ideal of community. Gropius' 1925 building at Dessau rejects historical allusions. The key to this vast shift in attitude and ideology is not Louis Sullivan, as sometimes assumed, but the penetration in the years immediately following World War I of the ideas of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos. In a 1908 lecture, "Ornament and Crime," Loos condemned all ornament as a hangover from earlier, less enlightened times. He put his ideas into practice in the severe design of his Steiner House (1910), among others. If there is a culprit for the triumph of routine corporate modernism, it is Loos--though this charge is surely unfair, as he could not have anticipated the for-profit routinization of his ideas after World War II.

[Note: Lecture Seven, out of sequence, precedes this one in the queue.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Summary of Lecture Six

The theme of the presentation was Byzantine civilization, concluding with its putative heritage in nonobjectivity. The term "Byzantine," suggesting deviousness and bureaucratic subterfuge, has its own aura of negativity. Historical analysis will largely dissipate this. The details of the Byzantine revival in Western Europe are covered in Bullen's monograph, Byzantium Rediscovered (a copy was passed among the class). Bullen has one major gap, in that he offers no coverage of Russia and Eastern Europe (where Orthodoxy and Byzantine statecraft left a permanent impress).

Before tackling the main theme of the presentation, it was deemed advisable briefly to address the problem of representation. The details, at least for Western Europe ca. 1300-1817 (Constable, "Wivenhoe Park"), appear in E. H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion (1960). Exemplary as far as it goes, this book does not account for the "great renunciation" of modern art, which subverts (De Chirico) or simply denies (Klee) the purported progressive message of the conquest of illusion. More probing in this regard is a more recent book, The Power of Images, by David Freedberg of Columbia University. Freedberg address the paradox of how realistic images (as the Venus de Milo) can be powerful, but so can "idols," such as the 12th-century Russian baba figure emulated by Goncharova.

The instructor noted some distinctions among the terms. In the strict sense "iconoclasm" refers to image-smashing. Today, the word is often employed in a metaphorical sense to refer to someone with sharp opinions that deviate from the accepted consensus. "Iconophobia" has some currency, but as with other -phobia terms there is a question as to whether suspicion of images is a phobia in the clinical sense. Perhaps the best term is "aniconism," which covers a whole range of responses. For example, early Buddhist art in India is aniconic only for the founder Sakyamuni, who is indicated by a plank or turban; his associates are presented directly. (This limited substitution is similar to a reluctance to pronounce or write the name of the deity, as the tetragrammaton in the Hebrew bible, or the abbreviation "Ds" (= Deus) in medieval manuscripts.)

The earliest examples of aniconism known to me come from pharaonic Egypt of the 14th century BCE. The monotheism of Akhnaten decreed an end to the anthropomorphic (and therioanthropomorphic) renderings of the gods. There was but one god, the solar Aten, and this figure could only be rendered in the form a disk (albeit with the uraeus signifier). The return to polytheism after the death of Akhnaten led to the mutilation of his works--iconoclasm. These acts of aggression were accompanied by efforts to chisel out the name of the royal offender (damnatio memoriae).

There followed a brief account of Byzantine history, from the founding of
Constantinople in 330. In fact the Late Antique period blends almost imperceptibley into Byzantium. By about 500 CE the latter was well under way, as the Western half of the empire fell under barbarian domination. The reign of Justinian (527-65) is the core of the first Golden Age of Byzantium. Justinian is best remembered for his building campaigns and his reform of Roman law. Lasting until 1810, the Justinian Code is the foundation of the civil-law tradition, observed almost universally outside the English-speaking countries.

After Justinian's death the empire was exhausted. In the early years of the 7th century a severe challenge occurred in the form of a massive Persian invasion. Heraclius managed to beat this incursion back--only to see some of his most prosperous provinces (Syria and Egypt) fall under permanent Islamic rule.

There was brief discussion of Islamic aniconism, which entailed strict exclusion of holy images from mosques and other religious structures. The central symbol of the faith, the Kaaba in Mecca, is an elementary form. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Prophet himself was represented, though usually with a veil over his countenance. These images appeared in manuscripts for private use, not in public settings. Here we have another aspect: aniconism according to context.

Islamic critiques doubtless played a role in the launching of official iconoclasm by Leo the Isaurian in 726. A great many holy images were destroyed, but not secular scenes, which were not effected. Leo's target was image worship which he decried, that is, idolatry. The controversy was not settled until 843, when icons again became permissible.

In due course the loss of the Eastern provinces was compensated by the penetration of Byzantine civilization northwards. Here the penetration of Cyril and Methodius into Moravia (863) was exemplary. These two missionaries translated the liturgy into Slavonic, and devised the Cyrillic alphabet (with minor modifications of the Byzantine Greek alphabet as seen in the use of the letter C to represent the "s" sound).

These efforts did not bear full fruit until the following century. The visit of Princess Olga of Kiev to Constantinople proved premature, but her grandson Vladimir converted, together with his court in 988. This shift unleashed a flood of immigrant talent: clergy, administrators and scribes, artisans, and architects. Among other things the art of icon-making on the Byzantine model took firm root in Russia. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the doctrine of the Third Rome (Moscow) was launched.

What was the nature of the early icons? These survive only in territories beyond the reach of the imperial writ. The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (founded by Justinian) has the largest cache, 36 examples. About 30 come from Egypt, while the city of Rome supplies a select quartet of Marian icons. We examined several choice examples, notably the Peter icon, where his garments anticipate the brushwork of Frans Hals. In fact this body of icons (all made before 726) constitute the foundation of all later European panel painting, including (e.g.) the Ognisanti Madonna, Duccio's Maesta, and the Ghent Altarpiece.

As the research of Ernst Kitzinger has shown, the later 6th century, a time of growing insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations attached to icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (they were readily portable). Some examples were to be held to be acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these superstitions caused contributed to the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.

Iconophobia was referred back to the prohibition in Exodus 20, though many held that this referred only to works in the round. In the end this exegesis formed the basis for compromise, as flat works (paintings and reliefs) were allowed after 843, but not sculpture in the round. This arrangement deprived Byzantium of an independent sculptural tradition comparable to the one that arose in Ottonian Germany ca. 980, serving as the basis of all later Western sculpture.

A second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Paintings by Emmanuel De Witte show, as it were, "before" and "after."

The instructor posited that Piet Mondrian, raised as a strict Calvinist, was heir to this tradition of suspicion of representation, as seen in his formal explorations of the Domburg church and the plus-minus works. His triptych "Evolution" is indebted to the Theosophical ideas of H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian seer.

Slavic countries are even more forthcoming. Over the years my analysis of the rise of nonobjectivity (restricted to the foundational years of 1909-15) has led to the discernment of a prime octet of major innovators. Of these, six are Slavic (Kandinsky, Kupka, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, and Sonia [Terk] Delaunay); this prominence is unlikely to be an accident.

Several contributions by Goncharova, including her "icon" of St. George were noted.
More pervasive, but by the same token more elusive were the inclinations of Kazimir Malevich. His 1915 hanging of the black square in a corner in fact evokes the "red corner" of the traditional orthodox peasant home. Malevich's use of elementary forms included a prominent role for the cross. As noted previously, it proved difficult to cause this form to shed its cultural accretion. As a final note, we acknowledged that Malevich's return to figuration in the later 1920s entailed aspects of image shyness in that the faces were elided.

In conclusion, the instructor noted his indebtedness to a somewhat imperfect book by Alain Besancon, The Hidden Image (University of Chicago Press), which traces the growth of aniconism from the Greek pre-Socratics onwards, with special emphasis on the modern Russians.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Summary of Lecture Five

Lecture Four presented a plethora of unfamiliar, disparate objects. Their contrasting, even contrary emphases suggest that Late Antique/Early Christian art has no style of its own. This heterogeneity is in fact rooted in Roman art, which developed on different tracks, depending on whether the work was official, funerary, private, or sectarian. The Decius portrait and the Christian building at Dura Europos are almost exact contemporaries, but couldn't be more different. The difference resides in the fact that the one belongs to the first Roman category just noted, the Dura frescoes to the last.

The main part of the lecture reprocessed, as it were, the categories introduced last time in an effort to discern organic links between the (incipient) medieval and the modern.

The term Expressionism appeared about 1910 to designate art trends that emphasized the inner theater of emotions as distinct from our processing of sensations (Impressionism, envisaged at E's polar opposite). The artists of Die Bruecke, formed in Dresden in the early years of the century, lie at the core of the Expressionist endeavor. Schmidt-Rottluff's "Melancholia," a woodcut of 1919, is a characteristic example. Works by Kirchner and Heckel were also seen. Godfathers of the movement were Van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

The intellectual underpinnings of Expressionism may well lie in Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy" of 1872. This work posits a fundamental dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian. While Nietzsche sees the two in a state of creative tension in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, he believed that the duality applied to all of life. Certainly the Dionysian seems to have application to late Roman life with its bloody cults of Mithras and Cybele, not to mention the executions of the Christian martyrs in the arana and (some would say) Christianity itself, where the central feature is the violent death of its Founder.

"Sphericity" is, it is now evident, a special case of Elementarism, a concept introducted by Theo Van Doesburg about 1925. Ultimately the concept stems from a dialogue of Plato, the Philebus. Here Plato maintains that the most fundamental principle of beauty lies in basic geometric forms. A visit to a humble carpenter's shop will illustrate this point, as the carpenter produces straight lines and circles with the appropriate instruments, resorting to a lathe for 3-D counterparts such as cylinders, cones, and spheres. This concept was illustrated by a page from Le Corbusier's programmatic treatise "Vers une architecture" of 1923. More recent cases of squares and cubes, circles and spheres were discussed. The cross form remains problematic in that, once Christian ideas had been attached to it, they were not readily dismissable.

The ideal of flatness is traceable to Sir Henry Cole's campaign for design reform in England, following the fiasco (as many saw it) of the kitschy, pretentious objects in the first world's fair of 1851. Cole and his allies held that carpets and wall hangings should not attempt to show depth, but much be kept relatively flat. William Morris mass-produced products embodying these principles. Edouard Manet transferred them to the fine arts, as seen in his "Fifer." Other examples were seen in works of Maurice Denis, Klimt, Matisse, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

The concept of tonal unification is easily referenced to impressionist, neoimpressionist, and postimpressionist work.

A number of examples the use of geometrical matrices were presented, including work by Adolf Gottlieb and Judy Chicago.

The aesthetic of the sketch came to the fore (as Albert Boime has shown) in the middle of the 19th century. A good exposition of this idea appears in Hawthorne's Roman novel, "The Marble Faun." A sketch by Delacroix for his monumental "Death of Sardanapalus" documented the freshness and freedom of such exercises, qualities that tend to be lost in the finishe work.

Proportional flexibity appeared in work by Picasso and Miro'.

Paul Signac seemed to have adopted (or adapted) his style by reference to the faceting of the mosaics in Ravenna and Constantinople.

Perhaps the most important of the categories was the idea of stylistic heterogeneity, the cohabitation of two or more styles in a single work. This was shown in two works by Picasso, his "Demoiselles d'Avignon" and an analytic Cubist still life. To the best of my knowledge, this feature (found of course in the Mary icon from Mt. Sinai) has not been adequately theoretized in art, though Bakhtin's polyphonic concept addresses it in literature. In Saul Steinberg's classic New Yorker cover each of the six figures has his or her own style, wittily making clear the link between (artistic) style and lifestyle.

Perspectival manipulation famously occurs in late Cezanne. De Chirico and Klee show more radical efforts. Ultimately these departures may be connected with non-Euclidean or Riemannian geometry, which emerged in Central Europe in the middle of the 19th century. In this mathematical concept, Euclidean geometry, the basis of "scientific perspective," is but a special case of the larger field of non-Euclideanism.

Seriation was referred to 19th century architecture, where (as in the Crystal Palace) a small number of basic, identical building components were utilized. Warhol's Marilyn Monroe diptych is a striking example in painting.

Overall patterning appears in the work of many abstract artists, as in Agnes Martin and (more contoversially) Jackson Pollack.

Late-antique architecture carried the Roman mallebility principle (assured by the use of concrete) to new heights. Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1920s) is a landmark example, rejecting as it does the geometrical grids that were de rigueur in the International Style. The TWA Building (Saarinen) and the Bilbao Museum (Gehry) were also shown.

In conclusion it was suggested the the thread connecting all these categories is their willingness to defy the norms of the classicist aesthetic first set forth in fifth-century Greece. Clumsily perhaps, Wilhelm Worringer sought to portray this epochal change as the overcoming of the empathy principle he detected at the foundations of the classical aesthetic.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Summary of Lecture Four

During the first three lectures we examined a number of key theoretical issues, clearing away much ideological underbrush that had accumulated during the era when disparagement of the Middle Ages and its culture was de rigueur.

The present lecture concerns the first of our source eras. Lasting roughly from 200 to 600 CE, is is termed either Late Antiquity (emphasizing the continuity with what had gone before) or the Early Christian period, signaling its role the first act, so to speak, of medieval culture.

Prior to 1901, there was scarcely any acknowledgment that art had existed at all during the five centuries in question. In 1901 this situation was transformed by the appearance of major monographs by two Viennese art historians. Alois Riegl emphasized the evolutionary aspect, showing late antique are as part of chain running through the Middle Ages and lasting as long as Rembrandt. Jowef Strzygowski stressed the catalytic role of Middle Eastern traditions, erupting as it were into the calm waters of the Greco-Roman consensus. Strzygowski, who had a particular affinity with Armenia, ranks as a major precursor of the ethnic approach to culture. As Otto Brendel has shown, the perceptions of such innovative scholars drew implicitly on their awareness of contemporary avant-garde art.

The main part of the lecture followed a nonlinear approach, in order to isolate the major themes of late-antique art. The common thread linking these categories is their disregard of the norms established in fifth- and fourth-century Greece.

The portrait head of Decius (emp. 249-51), with its tormented features, exemplifies the category of EXPRESSIONISM. The portrait ascribed to Plotinus reflects the ascetic philosophical ideals of the period, which may be connected with certain tendencies towards physical attenuation found in the art of the time. The Eutropius portrait displayed a striking geometrical rearrangement of the standard features of the human head.

The category of SPHERICITY appeared in the smooth, rounded images of Theodosius and Theodora. The contrast of this category with the previous one exemplifies the complexity of late-antique art.

FLATNESS is pervasive in the period, as seen in several paintings and reliefs. An early example is the standing figure from the Synagogue at Dura Europos (before 256 CE). In some cases, as in mosaic of Justinian's court in S. Vitale, Ravenna, a "floating" effect was achieved.

Various GEOMETRICAL matrices ware essayed, including the frames on the domes of the catacombs and the astronomical diagram from the Synagouge of Beth Alpha. A particular form was the imago clipeata, in which a bust is framed by a roundel. The Jewish ossuary in the British Museum comes close to nonobjective art.

The asethetic of the SKETCH, in which a few strokes serve to suggest a more complex image, comes to the fore in the catacomb paintings.

PROPORTIONAL FLEXIBILITY appeares in images that seem to us too short (the icon of St. Menas) or too elongated (statue of Valentinian II).

The art of mosaic lends itself to a FACETED approach, as seen in two Ravennate monuments, the tomb of Galla Pacidia and S. Vitale (Theodora and her retinue).

STYLISTIC HETEROGENEITY appeared in the Mary icon from Mt. Sinai, where the front row of figures is in one style, the two angels in the middle distance in another. The Arch of Constantine (315), making use of spoils, is a more radical example.

Several works showed a deliberate disregard of the rules of perspective, some favoring REVERSE PERSPECTIVE.

SERIATION, the deployment of line-ups of nearly identical figures, appears in relief carvings (Arch of Constantine, again) and paintings.

The device of OVERALL PATTERNING emerged in the starry vaults of the Christian building at Dura Europos and the tomb of Galla Placidia.

Finally, BUBBLE ARCHITECTURE, greatly extending the premises of earlier Roman architecture, was seen in Santa Costanza, San Vitale, and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The following lecture will document in extenso the parallels in modern art. By and large these are matters of a f f i n i t y, rather than "influence" as the term is usually understood. Yet there is a deeper connection, and that is that modernist vision in effect created late-antique art, something that prior to 1901 was not accepted as existing at all.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Suumary of Lecture Three

At the outset the instructor reported on his visit to St. Thomas Episcopal church (Fifth Ave. at 53d St.), previously introduced as an example of the mature Gothic Revival mode. In keeping with his recollection, the interior proved to be AC (Archaeologically Correct), with a tripartite elevation surmounted by rib vaulting. The end of the chancel was dominated by a humongous, sculpture-crowded reredos, providing a backdrop for the service. The latter, in keeping with High Anglican tradition, was something of a Cecil B. DeMille production, with processions, choral and organ music, and much rising, sitting, and kneeling on the part of the congregation. The building reflects the confluence of two 19th-century trends in England: Pugin's reforms and propaganda; and the Oxford movement. (See Brooks for further information.)

By way of a prelude to a return to the subject of RUINS in art, the discussion turned to the aestetic problem of the fragment, beginning with the powerful piece known as the Belvedere torso, eulogized by Sir Joshua Reynolds for its "perfection of the science of abstract form." A head from St.-Denis, severed in the 18th century, attests the role of vandalism (or restoration) in the creation of sculptural fragments. Rodin created ex-novo fragments, such as his "Striding Man." Some modern works, as the Cezanne watercolor. seemingly unfinished, appeal to the "beholder's share." Hence the nonfinito problem, one that does not seem to lend itself to any sort of definitive solution.

While there are occasional depictions of ruins in medieval manuscript illuminations, the subject does not really get off the ground until the Italian Renaissance, with its fascination with classical remains. In my view the role of ruins in Mantegna's Vienna St. Sebastian remains enigmatic-- a personal penchant? A symbol of the end of classical civilization? a counterpart of the plague? or a trope fo the breaking of Sebastian's body? (He was later stoned.) Similarly the ruins in Giorgione's "Tempesta" remain puzzling, though perhaps the new explanation by Jurgen Rapp (the figures as Paris and Oenone) may work.

(Btw, there is a recent coffee-ta le book on ruins in art by Michel Makarius, available at the Met at a reduced though still high price.)

During the 18th century the depiction of classical ruins took on a new pathos, as seen in works by Robert and Piranesi. These bring us to the life-changing experience of Edward Gibbon. In his own words: "It was at Rome, on the eighteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers, at the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of wriging the decline and fall of the City first started in my mind." The first installment of Gibbon's great work appeared in 1776. Essentially presenting the era as a prelude ot the Dark Ages, it served to retard the appearance of a more balanced approach to the era. Only by implication does Gibbon adduce a more general oomparative theory. Such, however, was presented in the 1830s by Thomas Cole in his five-part series "The Course of Empire" (New-York Historical Society). In 1918 Oswald Spengler brought out the first volume of "The Decline of the West," a full-dress exposition of the trope of the inevitable life-cycle of civilizations. Today, once again, historians and pundits are asking if we are about to reproduce the fate of ancient Rome.

In 1809 and after C.D. Friedrich transformed the theme of the pathos of ruins to apply to the Middle Ages. In keeping with a theme of the Romantic movement, his images of ruins are intended to evoke a sense of irreparable loss (a loss that Pugin later held he could in fact cure).

The theme of ruins invites many reflections. Ruins are caused in four ways: enemy action, despoliation, neglect, and deliberate creation (fakes).

In 19th century France the term for Gibbon's problem was decadence. As seen in Thomas Couture's 1847 painting, this expression was originally applied to the more distant (Roman) past. After the defeat of 1871 the term was actualized--hence the Decadent Movement, whose most prominent figure was Paul Verlaine. The adoption of the term "decdaent" illustrates the curious theme of "detoxification of terms, as seen e.g. in the "queer" trend and the Hollywood Rat Pack. Huysmans' novel "Against Nature" shows a genuine appreciation of the literature of late antiquity. This seems to be the first instance of a positive approach to the cultural products of this much-disparaged era. A little later the Viennese historians were to extend the approach to art works.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Summary of Lecture Two

Returning to two key figures discussed last time, Monet and Kandinsky, we find that a further contextualization dissolves the sense of iconographical arbitrariness, showing that, instead of pursuing mere personal penchants, these painters were responding to currents vital in their time.

In keeping with the Enlightenment disparagement of all things medieval, the French Revolution had treated the country's venerable monuments harshly--necessitating major restorations after the tide had turned. A telling document in the turn towards a renewed appreciation of the medieval contribution was Chateaubriand's "Genie du Christianisme" (1802), wherein he supported the forest theory of the origin of Gothic churches. Even more influential was Victor Hugo's novel "Notre Dame" of 1831. Setting his narrative at the very end of the Middle Ages, Hugo limned the Parisian cathedral as the mastertrope of a whole civilization. It stood on the verge of yielding to a new mastertrope, Gutenberg's printed book. Gradually a kind of cathedral-mania ensued in France, abetted by the 1842 revelation that the Gothic had in fact originated in that country (and not in Germany as had been previously thought--cf. Vasari's jibes). The enthusiasm generated one of the rare masterpieces of art-historical writing, Emile Male's "Gothic Image" (French original, 1898). Thus Monet's 31 love-letters to Rouen cathedral appeared at the culmination of a trend that had occupied four generations.

Kandinsky's excursions into Old Russia must be viewed in the light of Pan-Slavism, originating in the Prague Congress of 1848. At first primarily political (envisaging a series of national-liberation efforts), the trend came to emphasize the cultural distinctiveness of the Slavic peoples (Slavophilia). In Kandinsky's case this interest morphed into a concern with apocalyptic imagery (with both Eastern and Western roots), leading directly to his espousal of nonobjectivity. As with Monet the trajectory shows an inner logic, not a first suspected.

What is the Middle Ages? Is it truly a stable concept? The theme of fluctuating reputations can be seen in the changing reception of the work of Bosch and El Greco. The reputations of these two painters fell sharply at the time of their deaths, only to climb meteorically at the end of the 19th century. Today we admire the "real" Bosch and El Greco--but can we be sure? Eras also may suffer wholesale disparagement, witness 16th-century Mannerism and the Middle Ages.

As a synecdoche for the whole Middle Ages, the term Gothic merits close scrutiny. The Goths were a Germanic people that ravaged the Roman empire, starting in the 370s. By the 1140s, the birth date of what we know as Gothic architecture, the Goths had long disappeared as a distinct ethnic group. But the misnomer retained its appeal because of its aura of barbarism and bad taste. The disparagement prevalent in Early Modern Europe was only occasionally relieved by encomia of "Gothic balance," a free political system ostensibly introduced into England by the migrating Anglo-Saxons.

At first seemingly a neutral chronological marker, the term Middle Ages quickly took on negative connotations as the era was badmouthed as the "Dark Ages." We noted Vasari's 1550 harangue of the unnatural barbarism of the hated maniera tedesca. The religious reformers Luther and Calvin probably delivered more decisive blows. Calvinism adopted iconoclasm, physically annihilating mucy medieval sculpture and painting. As a via media Anglicanism was more tolerant.

In my view Chris Brooks' outstanding treatment of the cultivation of the "old style" in England cannot be bettered. Using the examples of Hagley Park and Nymphenburg we briefly alluded to the phenomenon of fake ruins in the 18th century. The third lecture will offer further reflections on the fascination with ruins.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Summary of Lecture One

The instructor's current semiretired status facilitates reflection on several topics of ongoing interest. Among these is the multifaceted phenomenon of the encounter between the medieval and the modern. Seemingly episodic and fleeting, these links in fact display a deeper substance and inner logic, as will become apparent in the course of the semester. (One clue to this logic stems from Wilhelm Worringer's little 1907 treatise, "Abstraction and Empathy.")

During the first hour a range of instances of the Gothic Revival was adduced. The church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue reflects the culmination of several generations' effort to "get it right+--to produce a convincing simulacrum of "real Gothic." The Brooklyn Bridge, mingling pointed arches with the nonmedieval principle of suspension, represents a creative adaptation. This contrast may be labeled the opposition between mimicry and midwifery.

As a Pre-Raphaelite, D. G. Rossetti subscribed (with mixed results) to their doctrine that art had lost its way ca. 1500. It was essential to recover the purity and sincerity of medieval and early Renaissance art. The painting "Dantis Amor" originally adorned a piece of furniture in the Red House, Bexley Heath (near London), an instance of midwifery in which such medieval features as them poiinted arch and asymmetrical plan happily consort with elements of other derivation.

Monet's 31 paintings of Rouen Cathedral belong to his mature phase, when he executed works in series (e.g. the grainstacks and the poplars). A building of personal as well as national significance, the Norman cathedral opened the way for other "citationalist" works (e.g the Houses of Parliament in Wsstminster and tye Palazzo di Mula in Venice.)

The previous examples all stem from the Western Middle Ages. About 1906 Vassili Kandincky began to engage the Slavic Middle Ages. Eventually his interest morphed into an intense preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery, leading to his breakthrough, in late 1912, into Nonobjectivity.